Sunday, 3 February 2019

The Silver Cigarette Case


THE SILVER CIGARETTE CASE
BY
BARRY VAN-ASTEN




Mr Thomas Fairfax, a man of slight wealth and much leisure, called upon Mr Esdmonde De John at his rooms in Eaton Square, Belgravia and finding the latter at home and busy in his drawing room which was sometimes called the library and sometimes called the study, seated amongst a few Christmas decorations, he took the opportunity of wishing Esmonde a merry Christmas. Esmonde in turn sighed and slumped further into his chair.
Thomas was a tall, dark-haired young man with an air of affected aristocracy who wandered through life with little purpose or regret, ‘you know Esmonde’ said Thomas,  ‘there’s a name for people like you, rarely used in polite society and frowned upon amongst the lower classes – a humbug!’ and Thomas drew closer to his friend.
‘Don’t mock me Thomas for I am in yuletide disarray!’ Esmonde said, his eyes looking up and directed at Thomas, filled with some perceivable heartache. Esmonde, a gentleman of similar wealth and appearance stood a little taller than Thomas and had about him an air of tragedy, a sort of melancholy that pervaded his persona.
‘Esmonde, dear boy, you look as if you have the weight of the world on your shoulders; what is the matter?’ Thomas asked quite affectionately, putting a hand on Esmonde’s shoulder as if to feel the weight of the world for himself. Esmonde looked up into Thomas’ eyes like a small boy full of dejection, ‘Aunt Augusta has sent a letter to inform me that she will be joining me for Christmas after all as the Vicar has had an unfortunate accident in the bell tower and shall be spending Christmas, and no doubt several weeks, disposed in the infirmary!’
‘No doubt it shall do him the world of good Esmonde to be amongst his parishioners in suffering! A pity he could not join them in abject poverty or at least meet them half-way, that would teach him something real and useful!’ Thomas laughed.
‘Yes but now I am condemned to suffer under the auspicious gaze of Aunt Augusta who does not appreciate my bachelor ways.’
‘My dear Esmonde even I do not appreciate your bachelor ways and I am quite broad-minded! I think in some respect even you fail to fully appreciate them and put them to good use! Perhaps it is time you entered the sanctity of marriage?’ and Thomas peered upon the condemned man with loyal tenderness.
‘Good God Thomas, you sound like a missionary!’ Esmonde said with a look of shock upon his face that could give ecclesiastical circles a run for its money! ‘Besides’, he continued, ‘I have it on good authority that the state of matrimony is doing very well without my interference and it would completely upset my soft furnishings!’
‘Ah, the fairer sex does have a tendency for upsetting a gentleman’s orderly conduct and haberdashery!’ uttered Thomas, ‘and children of course have that propensity to destroy a man’s sanity with the charitable thought that fatherhood is the apex of manhood and the paternal instinct the very meaning of existence; as if it is our sole purpose and duty to leave the next generation in a better condition than the one that abandons it!’
‘I have little regard for the next generation, the previous or the present for that matter and even less regard for the molluscs that crawl across the surface of the earth and have no wish to add to its population!’ Esmonde said, grasping the spirit of Christmas as if it were a thorny rose.
‘Why you sentimental old fool, you do have a heart after all!’ Thomas said with a look of tenderness in his eyes which can only be established through years of friendship. Thomas continued, saying ‘far be it for me to speak ill of the dead Esmonde but surely you can put up with the old girl for one day, it is Christmas after all?’
‘Christmas be damned! She has requested to stay the night as her daughter Francesca who would usually wait upon her in festive drudgery is attending a Christmas Ball at the parents of the man she intends to marry, a nice fellow, but rather dull! I can see it now - the carols will resound throughout the household like an introit for the dead! The dinner bell shall toll like a death knell and there will be a slow march to the awaiting grave that is breakfast in the clear light of day! My epitaph shall read “here lies the mortal remains of Esmonde De John, confirmed bachelor, who succumbed to the devastating and destructive influence of old age”.’
Thomas chuckled, ‘and I shall produce a marvelous eulogy, at no cost. The cemetery is filled with similar good intentions I believe.’
‘And the church is filled with wickedness,’ retorted Esmonde, ‘but nothing so wicked as having to sit opposite Aunt Augusta for Christmas dinner; her teeth rise like half-submerged derelicts from the exposed sands littered with the wrecks and prison hulks of yesteryear and her lips cover them like the shifting dunes of time! They died an awfully long time ago, when Victoria took the throne I am told!’
‘Then it’s high time she joined them! I have not had the pleasure of her company myself but I have it on good authority, actually Reverend Baldwin, that she has a fine complexion, not unlike cheese. Take comfort Esmonde that she will depart from this world at some point in the not too distant future one hopes and leave her spoils to her favourite Nephew, no doubt!’
‘Yes, and probably on the condition that I produce a family to order!’ and Esmonde winced.
‘Tricky! Thankfully I do not believe in miracles. Have you ever really been in love Esmonde, I mean all that surrendering of the spirit and two hearts as one sort of tosh? I hear it does wonders for the soul and for filling tedious idle hours which would otherwise be spent in fascinating manly pursuits.’
‘I was in love once, Thomas’, Esmonde confessed as if it were some sinful crime, ‘it was during the bloom of my youth and she was the most stunning creature that ever dreamed by night and walked by day, or perhaps I should say dreamed by day and walked by night as she was of a nocturnal beauty; her mind was piercingly fierce of intellect and her eyes were of a vaporous moonlight, the pure feminine, a goddess in stature who stood between worlds, that of the living and that of the dead; the most exceptional woman I ever met and ever will meet!’
‘And you let her go?’ Thomas said abruptly.
‘It was an inevitable catastrophe! She haunts my every thought and lingers in my dreams. I pour my love upon her from afar as if she were an altar of devotion and shall do till my dying breath on earth. I was a fool, an absolute fool to my shame!’ Esmonde bowed his head as if seemingly before that altar of his desire.
‘Well there is no use dwelling on the past old boy and what could have been; “might have beens” won’t cut any ice with Aunt Augusta you know!’ Thomas said in an attempt at sympathy. Esmonde looked off into the distance remembering things as they were between him and his lost love or inventing them in a new light of imagination and some moments elapsed until the silence was broken by Simpkins, Esmonde’s valet and general manservant entering the drawing room.
‘Excuse me sir, but I have taken the liberty of unpacking a case of sherry as your Aunt is so fond of it! Oh and I have disposed of that matter to which we are not supposed to talk about sir.’
‘I’m sure I don’t know to what you are referring to Simpkins but thank you anyway. That will be all for tonight, and merry Christmas to you!’
‘Yes merry Christmas!’ echoed Thomas, adding, ‘I say, he’s the very Sphinx isn’t he?’
‘I couldn’t do without him!’ whispered Esmonde, ‘he sweeps all my desires under the carpet until there is no trace of them! Everyone should have a Simpkins!’
Simpkins, a long-necked, reliable man in his forties left the room in his easy and distinctive manner; usually his head would enter a room peering round the door and the rest of him would appear several seconds later. He was a confident man not averse to covering certain misdemeanours of his master and employer, Mr. Esmonde De John; a man in receipt of much trust and favour in pasting over the socially embarrassing cracks that appear from time to time following his master’s excursions into unknown pastures of London.
Esmonde took his cigarette case from his pocket and offered it to Thomas, who took one and smiled, and then Thomas said, looking at the cigarette case: ‘I see you are still loath to part with this little treasure! See how close he clutches the abomination!’ Thomas mocked as Esmonde rolled the sparkling cigarette case in his hands.
‘There are so few cigarette cases in the hands of the recipients as most were pawned for hard cash Thomas and besides, it was a gift from Oscar to me and it has become a symbol of friendship – I could never part with it!’
‘Friendship indeed! You met him once or twice and consider yourself a life-long comrade of the condemned man!’ Thomas said as if scolding his friend.
‘Thomas you sound like a common shop girl! You know you are much mistaken and you are much like Oscar when you speak so ill of me for he was an inveterate snob also and I told him so, in jest of course, to his utter amusement.’
‘I know you did, it’s been trotted round every dinner and luncheon table ever since!’
‘You seem to doubt me Thomas.’ Esmonde said, hiding his upset.
‘On the contrary old boy I know the truth of the matter and have refrained from referring to it in society. Please do me the honour and haul it out once again just for me won’t you!’ Thomas put his hand on Esmonde’s hand with the touch of firm friendship.
‘You are rude Thomas and I shall do no such thing!’ Esmonde looked decidedly hurt by the remark.
‘I am sorry Esmonde, really I am, it’s just my way, I could never do anything to hurt you really. Please do relate the story once more.’ Pure love blazoned from Thomas’ eyes upon his friend, a love unspoken and eternal.
‘Oh very well, as you asked me so nicely. Well, I said he was an inveterate snob and Wilde, grasping at his jowls, thanked me and said he was much flattered by the observation and that the world revolves on flattery and coins of the realm and that he was rich in one and poor in the other!’
Thomas yawned; ‘I bet he never mentioned those stained sheets of the Savoy and that horrid chamber-maid; it will no doubt haunt him for the rest of his days – they were his undoing you know!’ Thomas chuckled.
‘Thomas, how could you be so heartless?’ Esmonde was decidedly perturbed.
‘Heartless nothing old chap! And fancy making that remark about the ugly boy, what was his name?’ Thomas rubbed his fingers together as if searching through an imaginary directory of ugly boys.
‘Walter Grainger.’ Answered Esmonde triumphantly.
 ‘Yes, that’s it, and not kissing him due to his peculiar ugliness! What a fool! It sealed his fate of course!’
‘Rot and you know it!’
‘Perhaps, was that the only time you met Wilde?’ Thomas inquired.
‘I’d rather not say.’ And Esmonde changed the subject. ‘Tell me Thomas, how is that book of yours coming along? Is it as indecent as its author pretends to be?’
‘Motets and Moon-Threads? Not so well but it’s to be expected; one cannot thrust a volume of poetry upon an unsuspecting public and expect a fair trial. The critic you know says what is on his mind and the artist says what is in his heart but the general public replies with what is in their bank accounts.’
‘There is a distinct lack in humanity to appreciate good poetry these days. When I am called to answer for my foibles Thomas I shall take Saint Peter aside and have the failing corrected!’
‘I have always suspected you of having fraudulent connections in the next world!’
‘You shouldn’t treat the matter so lightly you know Thomas, there are more things in heaven and hell… tell me, what is your opinion of death?’
‘Like honouring one’s debts it is to be avoided at all costs! You do surprise me Esmonde, for if I want a lecture upon immorality and spiritual affairs I go to my barber and if I want advice on all the riches heaven supposedly has in store for me I go to my tailor; likewise a sermon on the wickedness of fornication and the sins of the flesh is dispensed by my butcher – for business and financial management and salacious gossip I go to the Church!’
‘Then we are of a similar mind for I always go to my dentist for the dangers of democracy and political affairs of state to which he is privy! But seriously Thomas, what are your views on death?’ Esmonde gazed into Thomas’ eyes searchingly.
‘We exist and then we die, that is all, it is a bitter-sweet tragedy I know but there is no evidence to the contrary. Why are you so morbid this evening Esmonde?’
‘These dark nights of winter turn my mind to mortality and other dark thoughts I am afraid. I fear I am condemned to the obscurity of the grave; I have made no singular difference to the life of another living soul – I have been and ever shall be an unsatisfied and un-manifested afterthought and my life is not worth the skin I inhabit!’
Thomas put his hand on Esmonde’s shoulder, saying ‘such tragedy in twenty-seven years of existence! These thoughts are not peculiar to you alone you know, the essence of humanity is bathed in darkness.’
‘I can only speak for myself Thomas’, Esmonde said with a look of dejection on his face, ‘I am tired of the artificial and want something real to have and hold! I produce no sensation and provoke no emotion – I am already dead!’
Silence ensued and Thomas put his hand to Esmonde’s head and softly stroked his hair which seemed to pull Esmonde a little from his despair.
‘Aunt Augusta believes in spiritualism’, Esmonde said like a child, ‘you know all that table-rapping stuff and conversing with long dead entities such as Drake and Cromwell!’
‘If it were possible then why do we not hear from the likes of Judas, a much maligned man if I may say so, and Caligula and Genghis Khan? No doubt it shall come as some surprise to her when she looks death square in the teeth to find no celestial plane on which to play bridge or stand eye-ball to eye-ball with the great and the good! Have you ever seen a ghost Esmonde, you talk as if you are half converted yourself?’
‘I have a yearning towards such things but to say I have seen a ghost would be a lie, yet I might add, that the apparition of Aunt Augusta rising in the night like a spectre from the grave might have a similar effect upon the living!’
‘How perfectly frightful! You know Esmonde, I never could understand why you adore Christmas so much, or at least pretend to, you a complete pagan, and deplore New Year! Will you be attending mass this year?’
‘I would not miss it for the world! Those delightful choristers brighten up anyone’s Christmas mood especially after the Reverend  keeps insisting on mentioning some fellow named Jesus which completely spoils the atmosphere of Christmas!’ Esmonde sneered.
‘I quite agree’ said Thomas, ‘there is much too much importance placed on this Jesus chap, I mean, what did he ever do in the name of Christmas? It’s not like he invented the bloomin’ thing! Did he distribute presents to the children who slept soundly in their beds at night while Lord and Lady Dillweather-something-or-other hurried the servants along – no he did not! It seems to me all he did do was to stop people having damned fun; look at what he did in the market place for God’s sake, completely ruined everyone’s day – what a dullard, a real dowdy sort of fellow and not someone you’d care to rub shoulders with. He must have been thoroughly dead to every sensation, except suffering, he was very good at that so we are told constantly, but did he ever have one, just one strong and sensuous emotion or express beauty in the form of flesh upon flesh? These are the high sensations of life Esmonde. But I forget, I’m preaching to the converted.’
‘You are a born philosopher Thomas and a barbarian to boot! If I were born with your immeasurable kindness I should think I could accomplish wonders, but as I was not I do not and therefore waste away in utter obscurity; please say you will stay for dinner.’
‘Ah and be a witness to the ritual slaughter of Christmas by Aunt Augusta! When is she supposed to arrive: the witching hour?’
‘At eight and she is always punctual! Please say you will stay Thomas and protect me from her infernal questioning. I shall be an absolute wreck before New Year hammers the final nail in the coffin. You haven’t made other arrangements have you?’
‘That depends on what gastronomic delight you have prepared.’
‘Lobster!’ Esmonde said as if it were some sacred word of the Ancient Order of Gentlemanly Layabouts, uttered in darkness before an altar of depravity.
‘What a thoroughly wicked life you lead!’ Thomas squealed, knitting his brows together at the thought of lobster, ‘speaking of lobster, how is your sister Clarissa?’
‘I do not know why you should force lobster and my sister Clarissa into the same sentence as if it were a cooking pot; you know perfectly well she is engaged to be married.’
‘Is that still going ahead? I thought it had all fallen through.’
‘And why shouldn’t it? My sister is perfectly respectable and will make an excellent wife to Rector Spotiswode.’
‘I have frequently found that country Rector’s wives have all the erotic allure of an old Saint and the patience of a tuppeny strumpet!’
‘Thankfully I have never been so rash or so extravagant as to spend so much as “tuppeny” on a strumpet, patient or otherwise and never will and your attempt at humour is as disagreeable as a cold shower on a wet weekend in Hastings. Well, shall I set another place for dinner? It will be no trouble.’ Esmonde pleaded with his friend.
‘Very well old boy, I shall stay in the name of friendship and in the line of duty to defend the good name of De John!’
‘You are a marvel Thomas!’
‘So I am frequently told. You know, I cannot say myself that I have experienced love; all that passion sort of thing, it seems to me that lust is an ever-present condition and usually unsatisfied. I tend to believe that madness is the outward manifestation of love. You know Esmonde, I have always had this strange affliction for nuns, all that restrained passion suppressed by the spiritual bindings of the church and the material barrier of the habit. To tap it and see that passion gush forth like oil upon water in every conceivable fleshly direction, splashing upon poor sinning me. No doubt it shall all come out in my autobiography – Touched by Raven and Rook!’
‘You’re speaking like a common Bishop! Pull yourself together old boy and if ever such an autobiography were to appear it would be avoided like the plague!’ Just then a bell rang.
‘Talking of the plague!’ Esmonde turned quite pale and said ‘into the lion’s den!’
‘Remember Androcles!’ Thomas said defiantly.
‘He didn’t have to contend with Aunt Augusta!’ Esmonde went into the hallway to receive his Aunt.
‘Good gracious Esmonde! Have you sunk so low that you must open your own front door?’ Chimed Aunt Augusta.
‘And merry Christmas to you too Aunt Augusta!’ Esmonde bellowed, stifling his laughter before continuing, ‘I have given Simpkins the night off, it is Christmas Day after all!’
‘Yes, yes’ waved Aunt Augusta. ‘You know Esmonde, I have always noticed in you a nasty streak of lavish generosity. Such liberties did not occur in my day!’
Aunt Augusta entered handing her coat, hat and gloves to Esmonde. ‘I suppose cook will be available or have you completely taken leave of your senses?’
‘Cook has prepared a most admirable dinner and I have sent her home to be with her family at Christmas.’
‘How very bohemian of you, I really don’t know where you get it from, it’s certainly not from your mother’s side. Are there any other wild Saturnalian surprises in store?’
‘Just one and he is waiting for us in the drawing room.’
Esmonde ushered in Aunt Augusta whose stern face seemed to whither away the Christmas cheer at an alarming pace and replace it with Christmas misery.
‘And who is this, the parlour maid I daresay?’ said Aunt Augusta under her breath before intoning, ‘Esmonde, who is your charming friend?’ and Aunt Augusta stretched out an arm in the general direction of Thomas.
‘Aunt Augusta may I introduce my dear friend Mr. Thomas Cyril Fairfax!’
‘Pleased to meet you Mr. Fairfax; and what is your profession?’
‘I am a poet Madam! Therefore I have no profession!’
‘Ah, an honest sloth, how delightful.’
‘May I get you a sherry Aunt?’ asked Esmonde.
‘Esmonde, you know I deplore strong drink! But one must be festive I suppose, perhaps a small one.’ Esmonde handed Aunt Augusta a glass of sherry which was very far from small and very near to full and they all sat by the fire.
Aunt Augusta noticed a book on the fireside table and picked it up and turned it around in her hands, ‘Pride and Prejudice. Esmonde, have you been reading this?’
‘Yes, it’s really rather good Aunt.’
‘Hmm, a lady may write novels, it is a harmless occupation, but it is most unbecoming of a gentleman to read them! I find it quite deplorable that a lady should reveal a woman’s intimate and genteel shortcomings which would otherwise remain one of life’s great mysteries!’ Aunt Augusta sniffed and dropped the novel as if it were contagious.
‘Esmonde tells me Madam’, Thomas said in an effort to change the subject, ‘that you are interested in spiritualism, how fascinating!’
‘Yes, do you know that I am on the most intimate and friendliest of terms with most of the deceased Kings of England? They are really quite charming, except for Henry VIII, he’s quite a bully you know! When my time comes and I am called to the veil it is more than likely that I shall be returning like Marley’s ghost to rattle my chains and haunt the family who think I am slightly mad you know?’
‘Well as you shall be in the business of haunting I must give you the name and address of my tax collector!’ chuckled Esmonde; Aunt Augusta ignored the remark.
‘Tell me Mr. Fairfax, are your parents still with us or are they in the afterlife?’ Aunt Augusta stared inquisitively into Thomas’ eyes.
‘Gladly still with us Madam on the side of the living but sadly not here with us. I am of Hampshire stock Madam and my father is in the business of agriculture.’
‘He means he’s a farmer’s son Aunt Augusta.’ That distinguished old lady turned her nose up and shrivelled intensely at the thought.
‘Nothing of the sort Esmonde, father is an exporter of agricultural implements and is highly respected in that field and made a sizable fortune from it!’
‘Farmers and their fields!’ sighed Aunt Augusta, ‘shall you be returning to that delightful county for New Year Mr. Fairfax or have you completely lost all sense of proportion and accustomed yourself, like Esmonde, to London society?’
‘I am a simple man of nature at heart Madam and therefore have become fully acclimatised to the whirl of London life which I so enjoy and shall not be indulging New Year in Hampshire or any other county for that matter. Speaking of New Year, Esmonde quite abhors New Year.’ Thomas looked at Esmonde with unfaltering love.
Yes, and do you know why Mr. Fairfax?’ Aunt Augusta squeaked, looking down her nose.
‘Don’t believe a word of it Thomas!’ said Esmonde handing Aunt Augusta another sherry with a look of absolute fear on his face as if he were to be exposed of a crime.
‘Because’ continued Aunt Augusta in a tone of reverence, ‘he was found doing something quite unspeakable one New Year’s Eve with the house-boy!’
‘That’s a lie Aunt Augusta and you know it!’ Esmonde said defiantly.
‘I had it from the lips of your own dear mother Esmonde and I would hardly disbelieve my own sister now would I?’ There was a silence as Thomas looked at Esmonde and Esmonde glanced at Aunt Augusta who in turn was staring at Thomas. Esmonde nervously took his cigarette case from his pocket and put a cigarette to his lips.
‘Esmonde must you, you know I detest smoking and do not approve of it!’ declared Aunt Augusta, ‘you would not’ she continued, ‘do such a thing in church.’
‘That depends Madam’ said Thomas, ‘in theory – yes, in practice – no.’
‘Are you a church now Aunt Augusta?’ Esmonde asked sarcastically.
‘Don’t be impertinent!’ said that austere old lady taking another sherry for herself, ‘you may have acquired a smoky reputation which invariably occurs from some nefarious point of ignition but there is no need to fan the flames further by smoking!’
Esmonde glanced at Aunt Augusta and a chill surged through him as his attention was drawn to her atrocious teeth which rose like broken battlements in that valley of death which was her mouth; he returned the cigarette to the case, ‘and besides, continued Aunt Augusta, ‘that case has beastly attachments!’
‘It has nothing of the sort. It was given to me by a very dear friend, an artist; one might even go so far as to say a genius.’
‘That may be so but must he suffer for his art so literally and so publicly and offend society by so doing?’
‘Society can go hang!’ Esmonde said under his breath. Thomas chuckled.
‘You said something Esmonde?’
‘Merely that Society is everything! Thomas, you were telling me something of your interest in the church before Aunt Augusta arrived and how you admire those dutiful and poor sisters who work so tirelessly in their devotion.’
‘You are quite exceeding the realms of friendship dear Esmonde to speak of such personal spiritual aspirations which I spoke of in strictest confidence.’ Thomas handed Aunt Augusta another sherry.
‘You are quite right Mr Fairfax it is most unbecoming of Esmonde to bring the matter up. Are you married Mr Fairfax?’ Aunt Augusta asked.
‘Sadly no madam, I have not had the good fortune to find love.’
‘Good gracious! One does not marry for love Mr Fairfax; one marries for position and social standing. I absolutely detested my first husband Major Barclay, we never saw eye to eye on anything. He was stationed in India you know, until he had a touch of sunstroke and went queer, putting several natives in the family way before running off into the bush to do the only decent and honourable thing he ever did in his entire life: he put his revolver to his head and shot himself! Now my second husband, ah, Mr Wade, a good, kind man, poor Stephen… it was a most unfortunate accident, he bent down to tie his shoelace in Sloan Square and was kicked in the head by a horse, the cab man was most apologetic!’
‘Do they ever contact you, from the other side I mean?’ asked Thomas.
‘Good heavens no! The Major was never one to speak much in life, certainly not to me so I don’t see why he should suddenly become a chatterbox in death! Although I did hear from Stephen once, he told me that he didn’t mind me marrying again but I am hardly likely to try a third time! I find I am suited to widowhood, it has really made me!’
‘I must say you don’t paint an awfully pretty picture of marriage.’ Said Thomas with a smile, handing her another sherry, ‘if only I were twenty years younger Mr Fairfax I should attend to your peculiarities a little more carefully,’ Aunt Augusta said, smiling to reveal the sunken wrecks. ‘Forty years younger would not be stretching the imagination too far!’ Thomas thought to himself but politely said ‘Your Aunt Augusta Esmonde is a lady of impeccable taste and refinement!’
‘My dear Mr Fairfax, how very perceptive of you,’ returned Aunt Augusta, and so the conversation drifted into this and that corner of half-hearted attempts at prolonging humour and interest but in the face of such adversity as Aunt Augusta the barrage became a minor tirade of boredom and displeasure which eked itself out through dinner.
Aunt Augusta was decidedly unimpressed with the lobster but held her tongue on the matter and following two more glasses of sweet sherry she retired to her bed chamber for the night. Esmonde and Thomas sat up a while enjoying their brandy and cigarettes now that the old dispenser of gloom and disapproval had extinguished her eyes and found the world of sleep full of new opportunities for misery making.
‘I’m not sure I like the idea of your making love to My Aunt Augusta, Thomas, it is most distressing and thoroughly obscene.’
Thomas agreed to stay the night also as it was late and carriages would be difficult to be had and he was as much averse to walking as he was hard work, so he took up space on a sofa and made himself comfortable before falling into a chain of nightmares all of which featured the terrible sight of Aunt Augusta’s teeth.
The next morning, having woken quite late, Esmonde knocked on Aunt Augusta’s door to inform her that breakfast would be prepared shortly. Receiving no answer Esmonde slowly and cautiously entered the room and to his utter astonishment there was no sight or sound of Aunt Augusta; in fact, her bed had not been slept in. He scanned the room and worked by a process of elimination and made a search for her handbag for Aunt Augusta was rarely far away from her handbag and failing that he looked for her gown and then in turn looked for her gloves, hat and coat which were nowhere to be found and neither was the small and imperfectly formed body of Aunt Augusta or the rotten, broken tusks that rose from her gums and passed for teeth; in fact, she was nowhere to be seen in the house! Esmonde woke Thomas and told him his concerns and that Aunt Augusta was not there and seemed as if she were never there at all. Where could she be? Was she spirited away in the night? They both made a thorough search upstairs and downstairs and not a thread of her was to be found. It was as if she had never been there and further, not existed at all!
Esmonde discovered his cigarette case was missing – ‘I’ve been burgled Thomas’. A search for the item turned up nothing and the mystery deepened.
Thomas had to leave as he had already made arrangements that afternoon but he promised to return later that evening to comfort Esmonde who was beside himself with worry for his Aunt, and of course for the whereabouts of his cigarette case.
 It was towards the evening that a letter arrived from his cousin, Miss Wade who informed him that on her return from the country she found that her mother, Esmonde’s Aunt Augusta, had sadly died sometime around six p.m. the previous day, Christmas Day. But how could that have been when shortly after this time she arrived at the home of Esmonde in Eaton Square, and attended dinner and stayed the night? Miss Wade went on to say in the letter that Esmonde’s cigarette case was found on her person when she died at home which she could not account for. Esmonde was dumbfounded. How could it be? When he told Thomas of the letter that distinguished young gentleman was equally perturbed and perplexed and they both thought that perhaps some occult disturbance had been at play and they both agreed to put it out of their minds and resigned themselves to never talk about it again. Esmonde did not even ask for the return of the silver cigarette case as it would now hold a most distressing significance. Whatever had indeed occurred on that fateful Christmas Day it had a lasting and profound effect upon the lives of Mr Esmonde De John and Mr Thomas Cyril Fairfax.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Count Eric Stenbock


MOON-THROWN SHADOWS OF YEW (1)
COUNT ERIC STENBOCK: UNSPOKEN LOVE AND DEVOTION
By
Barry Van-Asten


As a founder member and secretary of a small group of dedicated literary enthusiasts who meet monthly on the night of the full moon to dine and discuss obscure points of literary interest in the lives of lesser known poets, I have thought it of some benefit to pedants and admirers alike to record some of the official findings in accordance with the club’s meetings. First, a brief history of the exclusive club is in order for it goes by the name of ‘The Damaged Poets’ Club’ and its sign is the broken quill; I brought it into being some seven years ago and to date there are just five members including myself, all suffering under the yoke of Erato, the muse of poetry and all a little ‘damaged’. Members of the club adopt an assumed name, and title of their own choosing and a list of members to date are: Lord Cecil d’Florrette, an enthusiast of uranian poetry; Sir John Chevalier also known as ‘Johnny Deadbones’ after his obsession for dead things; Baron Alexander Warlock, an amateur astronomer and enthusiast of the poets Lionel Johnson and Roden Noel; Lord Chanson d’Wilde, an admirer of all things ‘decadent’ and myself, Sir Pent O’Gramme, a noted if somewhat amateur diabolist. To give a few examples from the records of the proceedings of the club, if we look at December (the fifteenth to be precise) we find there was a dinner: ‘Omnia exeunt in mysterium’, which consisted of buttered shrimps, Canard a’ la Rouennaise, followed by Quince and cream in honour of the death of Arthur Machen (not strictly an obscure poet but a literary figure we all admire); drinks included: Quinta do Noval 1931 vintage port, Ducastaing 1889 Armagnac, a Martell 1906 and a special ‘Dog and Duck’ punch (No. 2) concocted by Machen (2). Lord Cecil read his paper on “Machen’s occult threads through ‘The Great God Pan’ and ‘The Hill of Dreams’” and a discussion ensued upon the Lovecraft/Machen connection with supernatural entities and other-worldly beings; of course the name of Aleister Crowley was raised during the discussion, a subject I know something about being a student of his works and having spoken upon myself only the previous month for our ‘Crowley Supper’ to celebrate his entry into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn which consisted of a fiery curry made by myself which I called ‘Kanchenjunga’s Revenge’, charged from the depths of hell; (I had prepared a magick circle and after a brief invocation I read Crowley’s ‘Hymn to Pan’ and the atmosphere was charged with a palpable magical energy). Domaine de Chevalier, 1920 and a Piesporter Goldtropfchen 1925 was drunk followed by cigars all in honour of the old Beast!
In the following March a special dinner was prepared to celebrate the entry into the world of Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbock, a poet favoured by Lord Chanson d’Wilde who gave a talk on the eccentric and rather ‘damaged’ poet. The meeting took place at the home of Lord Cecil who prepared a fine feast he called ‘The Taste of Death, Sin and Ecstasy’ and consisted of (and Lord knows how he acquired the ingredients: or perhaps he was pulling our legs!) cats’ eyes soup for starters followed by cheese soufflés (a decided let down) and then a main course of penguin tongue and roast swan in Guillemot sauce and Guinea pigs’ hearts with artichoke and asparagus which was splendidly decadent and a chocolate mousse in the shape of a serpent. We drank Absinthe, a Domaine Leroy Richebourg Grand Cru, 1949 and a Cheval Blanc 1947 St-Emilion. Before the discussion ensued I had draped a coffee table with a black cloth and set six candles in place around a photograph of the poet and knelt at the altar as I lit the candles in his honour. We each in turn paid our respects at this shrine. The meeting commenced with a recitation by Lord Chanson from the works of Eric Stenbock, a poem entitled The Vampire, whose ‘serpent coils’ seemed appropriate for the sweet dish and had us all drooling over our chocolate mousse!

‘I would seek thee in secret places
In the darkest hour of night,
Embrace thee with serpent embraces,
Delight thee with strange delight.

In a serpent’s coils entwine
The supple and exquisite form,
And drink from thy veins like wine
Thy blood delicious and warm.

With slow soft sensual sips
Draw the life from the tender spray,
And brush from thy soft lithe lips
The bloom of thy boyhood away.

I would breathe with the breath of thy mouth
And pang thee with perfect pain;
And the vital flame of thy youth
Should live in my limbs again.

Till thy vital elastic form
Should gradually fade and fail,
And thy blood in my veins flow warm,
And glow in my face, that was pale.’

One interesting point raised by Lord Chanson in respect of Stenbock concerned the young boy to whom Stenbock dedicated his volume of verse ‘Rue, Myrtle and Cypress’ in 1883 (the book was also dedicated to the artist Simeon Solomon (1840-1905) and Stenbock’s cousin, the naval officer in the Russian Imperial Navy, Lieutenant Arvid Stenbock), (3) the boy’s name was Charles Bertram Fowler and Lord Chanson had exposed certain information about the boy and his family to which he said he would relate upon the next meeting. Baron Alexander also read his review of the poems of Digby Mackworth Dolben before its submission and several concerns were raised on minor faults in punctuation; and a short discussion ensued on Christopher Sclater Millard who wrote under the pseudonym Stuart Mason, on his appreciation of the work of Oscar Wilde and some ‘inconsistencies’ in his bibliography of the playwright were noted.
The next meeting convened at the ‘Worshipful Whore Inn’ located in a small village (not disclosed) in April which also coincided with Stenbock’s death and a lavish dinner of sorrel, saffron and giblet soup to start with and a side of Cornish oysters, soused herrings and turtle fins with caviar followed by a mains selection of either white truffles and Balut with roast Surrey fowl, partridge and fois-gras or black truffles with Ortolon and Duckling a’ la Bordelaise with a dessert of medlars in ice cream. The drinks available were: Haut-Brion 1874, 1808 Malmsey and a 1790 Reserve which were all first class. Dinner was pronounced a great success and Lord Chanson began his talk upon the subject of Charles B. Fowler by giving some details as to his parents which was that his father was the Reverend Alfred Fowler (4) who was born in 1835, the son of John Fowler of Eastleach near Lechlade in Gloucestershire. Alfred was educated at Queen’s College, Oxford, matriculating on 2nd June 1853 aged 18, attaining his BA in 1857 and from 1858 he held various curacies, including Vicar of Compton, as ascertained from his son’s, namely Harcourt Boyes Snowden Fowler’s entry in the Cambridge Alumni, until his death on 8th August 1880 in Farringdon aged 45 [July-Sept 1880. Vol 2c, page 165, line number 299]. Alfred married Catherine Diana Snowden on 25th June (or 1st of July, there is some discrepancy) 1857 at St George’s Church, Ramsgate in Kent. Catherine was born in 1833 and Christened on 10th August that year at St George’s Church, Ramsgate and she was the daughter of the solicitor Thomas Hodges Grove Snowden. She died in 1906 in Chester aged 72. There were five children issuing from the marriage, namely: Harcourt Boyes Snowden Fowler born in Highworth, Wiltshire in 1858 [Oct-Dec 1858. Vol 5a, page 2, line number 32], (Christened on 12th November 1858) and educated at Malvern College and Jesus College, Cambridge matriculating in January 1881 aged 22, attaining his BA in 1884. He was ordained deacon (Worcestershire) in 1885 and also married Fanny Warren in that year in Lymington, Hampshire; he became a priest in 1886, Church in Witley, Worcestershire, 1885-90; Church of Inkberrow 1890-97. Vicar of Elmley Castle with Netherton 1898-1932. He died on 27th January 1942 at Milford-on-Sea, Hampshire.
The second born child was Jessie Louisa Fowler, born 1860 [April-June 1860. Vol 5a, page 5, line number 159], Christened on 25th May 1860 in Highworth, Wiltshire. She married the Reverend Walter Octavius Marsh Hughes (5) on 7th August 1884, at Shrivenham, Berkshire and they had five children (6). Walter (born in 1861 at Tiverton, Devonshire) died in 1931 in Chester and Jessie died in 1928 in Chester, Cheshire aged 67.
The next child was Herbert Alfred Fowler born in Highworth, Wiltshire 12th September 1861 [Oct-Dec 1861. Vol 5a, page 2, line number 31], and Christened on 4th October 1861. Herbert went up to Magdalene College, Oxford, matriculating on 13th October 1879 aged 18, and he became a clerk in 1879.
Another boy was born to the Fowlers named Ernest Kingsford Fowler in Highworth, Wiltshire in 1863 [April-June 1863. Vol 5a, page 5, line number 57] and Christened on 29th May 1863 in Highworth. Ernest immigrated to Canada and he married Julia Maude Howard Linton on Saturday 30th April 1892 in Sutton West, York, Ontario, Canada. Ernest is 28 years old and Julia is 25 and they had two children (7). Julia was born 2nd May 1866 in Georgina, Ontario, Canada, the daughter of James Buckley Linton and Lucretia Linton. Ernest Kingsford Fowler died on 19th January 1902 aged 38 at the New York Hospital, in the Bronx, New York City, New York, United States. His occupation was ‘civil engineer’ and he was buried on 22nd January 1902 at Sutton, Ontario, Canada. His wife, Julia Maude Howard Fowler crossed the border from Canada to the USA on 23rd November 1944, arriving at Buffalo, New York.
And the boy who is the subject of our discussion, Charles Bertram Fowler was born in Northleach, Gloucestershire in 1864 and died in 1881 in Faringdon, Berkshire aged 16. (8)
Three years before Charles was born, we can see from the 1861 census that the Fowlers were living at 83, Faringdon Road in Highworth, Wiltshire. (9) His father, Alfred is twenty-six, and a ‘curate of Highworth, Wiltshire’; Catherine is twenty-seven, young Harcourt is two and Jessie is just eleven months old. The family have two servants.
Ten years later in the 1871 census the family are living at Malvern Wells in the village of Hanley Castle, Upton upon Severn, Worcestershire. (10) Alfred is thirty-six and a ‘clerk in Holy Orders without cure of souls’; Catherine is thirty-seven and with them is Catherine’s sister, Jessie S Snowden, aged twenty from Ramsgate. Their children and ages are: Harcourt 12, Jessie 10, Herbert 9, Ernest 7 and Bertram C, 6. Also at the address are Alfred’s Nephew; Charles M Bengers aged 9 and his Niece, Emily M Cochrane aged 9. There is a twenty-three year old Governess named Georgeada Countze from St Martins, London and three pupils: Robert S M Synge aged 14 from Eccles, Manchester; C J R Stirling aged 13 from Bath and Henry P Williams aged 9 from Hereford. There are also three servants. Following the discussion Lord Cecil read us a synopsis of his piece about Edward Cracroft Lefroy and his ‘Echoes from Theocritus’ which was most interesting if a little long-winded.
For the May meeting the club met at rooms in ‘The Shivering Cow’ (location unspecified) and Dinner, which I thought quite unimaginative, consisted of: Frogs’ legs and escargot for starters and a choice of mains: Pigeon Pie or Trout. The dessert was lemon sponge cake with cream. Drinks were quite exceptional: 1914 Groizet Bonaparte Cognac, Lafite 1865, Penfolds Grange Hermitage 1951 and an 1830 Saint Christeau Armagnac (instead of the Madeira 1795 Companhia Vinicola Terrantez we were promised!)
Baron Alexander stated that Adlard (11) said that he could find very little information concerning Charles Bertram Fowler, the object one supposes of Stenbock’s affections and we can only speculate as to the nature of the relationship which undoubtedly unfolded when Stenbock was an undergraduate at Oxford. ‘Do we actually know how they met?’
‘It is my belief’ stated Lord Chanson, ‘that there are two obvious opportunities for Stenbock to have known Charles Fowler, one is that Stenbock was an acquaintance of Charles’ brother Herbert Alfred Fowler (born 1861) who was up at Oxford during Stenbock’s time there – Stenbock matriculated in April 1879, aged 19 at Balliol College and Fowler in October 1879 aged 18 at Magdalene College; and the second possibility is that Stenbock knew Walter Octavius Marsh Hughes, who married Charles’ sister Jessie Louisa Fowler and who matriculated in October 1879 aged 19, at Magdalene College.’
‘We must also remember’ continued Baron Alexander, ‘that the boy was only sixteen at the time of his death in 1881.’ Lord Chanson agreed and continued, saying that if Adlard is to be believed, we can estimate the time of the boy’s death as being the 12th of June 1881, or thereabouts, in fact, just ten months after the boy’s father, Alfred’s death in August 1880. (12) Stenbock was five years senior to Charles. In fact, I have managed to track young Charles in the census of 1881 which was taken on the night of the 3rd of April, just ten weeks before his death. He is living at the eighteenth century Medlar Cottage on Faringdon Road, in Compton Beauchamp, Shrivenham in Berkshire and he is a sixteen year old scholar. The head of the household is his mother Catherine Diana Fowler, a 47 year old widow of clergyman, no occupation and living with them is Charles’ sister Jessie Louisa Fowler who is 20 years old and of no occupation. With the Fowlers is an eleven year old boarder named John Mervyn Swinhoe, born in Swindon, Wiltshire in 1869, and a General Servant, twenty-six year old Ellen Fessey from Boddington, Northampton. (13) The death of young Charles is recorded as consumption occurring in Faringdon, Berkshire. I think I am right in saying that had he lived he would probably have followed in his brothers’ footsteps and gone on to Oxbridge and maybe even in his father’s and brother Harcourt’s into the Church!’
‘Do you believe’ asked Sir John, ‘that much of the poetry in Stenbock’s first volume alludes to the relationship between Stenbock and the boy?’ (14) ‘I think it is safe to assume’ said Lord Chanson, ‘that he manifests throughout Stenbock’s second collection, Rue, Myrtle and Cypress in some particular fashion, rather than in his first collection which may well be romantically inclined towards the young, actually sixteen year old composer Norman O’Neil (1875-1934) whom Stenbock met on the top deck of a horse-drawn bus in Piccadilly on 9th May 1881, but it is only conjecture; in the first volume we find that the poet becomes separated from his beloved, who perhaps more succinctly is taken from the poet by his friends who disapprove, and page thirty-four of the volume states quite clearly that the beloved is in fact a boy! Rue, Myrtle and Cypress declares quite clearly in sensuous lines that Stenbock is infatuated with youth and very probably, Charles Bertram Fowler! Take for instance, Song XIII: To a Boy, the imagery is certainly clear:’

‘Tis even a delight, dear,
To gaze upon thy face,
To love the life within thee,
Fair fashioned, full of grace.
But in the dark of thy body
The soul hath no resting-place.

And so there is that about thee
Which left me not content,
As the sighing strings of the wind-harp,
Where the wind’s weird wailings went,
Or the poor pressed petals that still keep
A thought of the rose’s scent.’

‘Quite charming! And perhaps it does allude to his inclinations, but is there any indication as to the relationship that existed?’ asked Baron Alexander.
‘It seems to me’, said Lord Chanson, ‘that there really is only three options as to the nature of the relationship and that is that one: Stenbock saw the boy and was probably in awe of his beauty and vibrant vigour of youth and loved him from afar and drew inspiration from him for his poetry, or that two: Stenbock actually did become acquainted with the boy and was on friendly relations with him and no doubt showered gifts upon him and made a flattered Charles the recipient of his first book of poems ‘Love, Sleep and Dreams’, and that three: they knew each other on intimate terms and were in fact lovers; my own conclusion tends towards that they were on friendly terms and Stenbock filled in the blanks in his own mind, a sort of homosexual fantasist, not too unlike Baron Corvo, but of course, we can never really be sure.’
‘Hmm, so you are suggesting’ I said, ‘that d’Arch Smith was possibly correct when he says and I quote: “lust for young boys and his morbid desire for death as a release from psychological distress – but no boy slaughtered Stenbock in the madness of his kisses and the Count drained no boy of his life-blood. Instead, opium and alcohol, aiding his delusions but undermining his health, increasing his obsessions but, supporting for a time his feverish brain, hastened his end,”?’ (15)
‘I think that is a fair assumption!’ said Lord Chanson.
‘This is all most interesting’ declared Sir John, ‘but I would like to know to what extent Stenbock was immersed in the occult?’
‘I can say with reasonable confidence,’ I said, ‘that Stenbock’s occult interests stemmed from his mystical nature which was a sort of pagan Catholicism and I believe Francis King hits the nail on the head when he says Stenbock “made an attempt to understand his own homosexuality in terms of traditional occultism, eventually coming to view his condition as an aspect of vampirism and lycanthropy, torn between Catholicism and diabolism.”’ (16)
‘Do we know Stenbock’s reaction to the boy’s death?’ asked Lord Cecil.
‘I am afraid we don’t but we do know’ Lord Chanson explained, ‘that Stenbock is in London on 9th May for he meets the composer Norman O’Neil and in Oxford on 23rd May and four weeks later on the 20th June, just a week after the young boy’s death, Stenbock, who is twenty-one years old, was in London. He has left Oxford and dropped out of education – is his leaving Oxford related to the death of Charles who would have been progressively sick before his death on 12th June? Were there rumours of a possible scandle? Probably not but we do not know for sure. We do of course know that Eric had converted to Roman Catholicism and his mother and stepfather were decidedly unhappy about this turn of events, Francis Mowatt (Stenbock’s stepfather) saying in a letter to Eric’s Uncle Nikolai Stenbock, dated 27th March 1877 that ‘he may grow wiser as he gets older, and again join some less ridiculous religion’ and perhaps this had some say in his leaving, and not some abominable behaviour. But by 22nd July Stenbock is in Wiesbaden, Germany; before the end of the month he is in St Petersburg and by the 4th August he is in Estonia, at the sea-side villa in Zitter. It is also known that he wrote some thirty poems between May and November of 1881 most of which were published in his second volume – Rue, Myrtle and Cypress, two years later in 1883. He would have found the death of a beautiful and perfectly innocent youth quite arousing I should think!’
‘Don’t we all gentlemen!’ I said with hands clasped in reverence.
‘Speak for yourself, Sir Pent!’ said Sir John, ‘but I prefer my lovers in the land of the living thank you very much!’
‘Adlard also states that the boy died at the Rectory in Compton Beauchamp, is this so?’ asked Lord Cecil, adding ‘I wonder if Stenbock attended the funeral or paid his respects at the graveside in private?’
‘From the records’ answered Lord Chanson, ‘I find that Charles died in the village of Compton Beauchamp and is in fact buried there. The village is three miles southeast of Shrivenham in the Faringdon district of Berkshire (now Oxfordshire) and the living for St. Swithin’s Church is the old Rectory. I have yet to confirm that the boy died at the Rectory but as Adlard seems to believe so there is no doubt to disbelieve him! (17) Until by some extraordinary good fortune letters surface we are destined to remain in the dark I am afraid!’ Baron Alexander then read from his own six part poem composed upon the youth in question – Charles Bertram Fowler which we hereby omit from the records due to the content which was very near the knuckle and almost ‘blasphemous!’ and the results of a séance to contact the boy’s spirit conducted between myself (Sir Pent O’Gramme) and an ‘unknown woman of mediumistic ability’ has also been omitted.
A final meeting in relation to the Stenbock/Fowler debate occurred in June and was held in a room at ‘The Gardners Arms’ and in attendance were – myself, Lord Cecil, Sir John and Lord Chanson (Baron Alexander refused to attend due to a point of punctuation, viz the missing apostrophe in the name of the venue – The Gardners Arms, something we all felt deeply about yet overlooked for the sake of the meting, dear Baron!). Following a sumptuous dinner of Yorkshire ham and glazed tongue with a choice of sweet dishes, and for drinks – a 1906 Croizet Bonaparte Champagne and an 1893 Legendaire Armagnac,  Lord Cecil began the talk by asking Lord Chanson of the whereabouts of Stenbock during the 1881 census taken on the night of the 3rd of April.
‘From the records’ said Lord Chanson, ‘we can see that he was at the family home at Withdeane Hall, near Brighton in Sussex with his stepfather Francis Mowatt, aged 43 (born 1838 New South Wales) whose occupation is ‘Principal Clerk Treasury’(Count Eric Stenbock did not get along with his stepfather); his mother Lucy Sophia Mowatt, aged 41 of Old Trafford, Cheshire (18) and Francis’s children: Mary Hilda Mowatt aged 15 (b. 1866) London, Middlesex; Francis Herbert Mowatt 13 (b. 1868) London, Middlesex; Lucy Winifred Mowatt 12 (b. 1869) Cheltenham, Gloucestershire; Charles R J Mowatt 8 (b. 1873) London, Middlesex; Godfrey F Mowatt 6 (b. 1875) London, Middlesex and Margaret Mowatt 5 (b. 1876), Patcham, Sussex. There is one boarder named Emilia C J Martin aged 25 from Kessaengen, Germany and eight female servants between the ages of 16 and 42, seven of which are English and one, namely Eliza Darkhead, 24 is Prussian.’
After a brief pause, Lord Chanson continued, saying ‘it has been suggested that Stenbock showed little grief after the boy’s death and if it were so why would he dedicate the second collection of poems to him, a mere sixteen year old boy (alongside Simeon Solomon and Arvid Stenbock)? For proof we need only look at the poems within that slim volume for signs of grief! I would like to read a few examples as evidence gentlemen, and you may decide for yourselves the nature of the affection penned for all eternity!’ and Lord Chanson read from his notebook:

‘Song IX

Ah play to me
That melody
For I am sick of love.
I think all day
Of one far away
Whom that tune reminds me of.

Day is as night,
Without the light
That flows from his love-lit eyes.
Night waste as day
I pine away,
My spirit within me dies.

I cannot sleep,
I only weep,
Bereft of his soft embrace;
And through the day
I think alway
On that sweet familiar face.’

‘And take into account these lines from the poem Golden Dreams –‘

‘I dreamed of you, my darling, that I again had found you
(I had dreamed it twice already, so I knew it was not true) –
That I again had found you, and wound my arms around you,
And your eyes looked up so sweetly, just as they used to do.

And you told me that you loved me, and you said that you had missed me,
And that we, though rent in sunder, should be brought together again,
And so warmly you embraced me, and so tenderly you kissed me,
That my heart was glad within me as the sunshine after rain.

And you told me, ah so sweetly, you would stay with me for ever,
And I had so much to tell you that I scarce knew what to say…

And later on in the poem we find the despairing lines:

Is so very little pleasure worth such bitter disappointment,
And is a joy so fleeting worth so long an after pain?’

‘And there is an increase in the passionate language as the poet yearns towards his love in Song XI:’

‘Entwine thy limbs around me, love, and let
Thy sweet soft face lean closer kissing me,
Ah sweet! thy beauty sings and burns me, yet
Alas, my love, my heart is far from thee!

Cast forth upon the waves and rent in twain,
A riven relic, severed of the sea,
I fear ‘t will hardly learn to love again, -
Alas, my love, my heart is far from thee!

Sweet, be not angered with me, kiss me yet,
And throw thine arms about me lovingly –
Thou art so beautiful, shall I forget?
Alas, my love, my heart is far from thee.

Sonnet IX

Visit me sometimes in the dreams of night,
Until the daybreak and the shadows flee
Away, and let my soul commune with thee;
Grant me at least this brief and cold delight –
Canst thou not cross the veil – ah, that I might
Lie but one night in dreams embracing thee,
And feel thee near me, hear thy voice, and see
Thy face once more, and gladden in the sight.

My love is dead, and comes not back again,
Yet once in the still watches of one night
I felt the silence cleft with a low moan
From a loved voice, that sighed as if in pain,
A spirit’s lips were pressed upon mine own, -
- Then I arose to curse the wan daylight.

Sonnet XI

It might have been, but ah, it was too late –
Doomed to be disappointed – and how long
Shall I still sit and sing that soul-sick song
Of which my soul is sadly satiate?
What curious counterchange of fitful fate
Led thee to me, for whom I had longed so long,
Of many days and hours, choosing the wrong,
Even that heart-sick hour called ‘too late’?

And thine eyes looked on me so piteously,
Beautiful eyes, that thrilled and filled with tears,
Tears, even for one of which I had yearned for years,
Even for this little, love, long did I wait,
And when it came it was too late – too late.’

‘In Sonnet XII we have the line “is thy one flower trodden under foot” and it may be a tentative connection but the similarity between “flower” and “fowler” would not have escaped the poet:’

‘All of no use, ‘twas all of no avail,
I lived my life, I loved my love in vain;
Yea, of all pains this is the bitterest pain,
In sooth ‘twere hard to tell a sadder tale.
The long hours come and go, and weep and wail,
All wound thee, and the last shall leave the slain,
The joy missed once shall not come back again,
And all thy tears shall be of no avail.

Is thy youth fled, - and are thy dreams all dead?
Is thy one flower trodden under foot
In bye-ways, where the way-worn wonderers tread,
Or hath it bloomed and perished without fruit?
Or is the fruit thereof all plucked and shed?
Or hath thine own hand killed it at the root?’

‘He is certainly a very underrated poet!’ I said.
‘It must have been a terrible strain’ suggested Lord Cecil, ‘for the boy’s mother, Catherine; to lose her husband and then several months later lose her youngest child!’
‘Indeed, I am sure it was.’ Lord Chanson answered, gravely, adding that ‘I have found her in the 1891 census living at Malva Cottage, Bath Road in Speen, Berkshire, she is fifty-seven years old “living on own means” with her twenty-three year old general servant, Alice H Reynolds from Ramsgate, Gloucestershire. (19) And in the 1901 census Catherine, aged sixty-seven, is living with her daughter Jessie and her husband the Rev. Walter Octavius Marsh Hughes at the Rectory in the High Street, in Tarporley, Cheshire. (20) Catherine dies there five years later aged seventy-two.’
‘Is it not the case, Lord Chanson’ enquired Sir John, ‘that Stenbock woke beside the cold corpse of some young man of the cloth?’
‘That is correct Sir John but it does not really concern us. The fact is that a friend of Stenbock’s, namely the Reverend William Pomeroy Ogle had come to see Stenbock at his home in London and there took two or three opium pills, I forget how many; it’s widely known that Stenbock was deep in the grip of the drug and took what to others would be a lethal dose, anyway, the two men went to dinner and then went on to Brentwood where the good Reverend lived and they shared a bed for the night. Stenbock woke in the morning to find his friend dead beside him from heart failure!’ (21)
‘I think we have explored’ I said, ‘all that we can for the present concerning Charles Bertram Fowler and we must draw to a close. It was unfortunate that Baron Alexander could not be with us tonight and we shall certainly inform him that he missed a Chateau Lafite 1787 and a Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1945 and of course a splendid feast, one that even Stenbock would have delighted in, for we tasted, or at least we shall tell the Baron, that we tasted that rarest of delicacies – human flesh!’ and a genteel rumble of laughter ended the meeting.




NOTES:

  1. The Passion of Sleep: A Ballade. ‘The Shadow of Death: A Collection of Poems, Songs and Sonnets’. Count Eric Stenbock. 1893.
  2. ‘Dog and Duck Punch is an essentially fluid conception’. Thanks are in order to Mr. Mark Valentine, a celebrated Machen scholar and author. The punch, whose exact quantities of ingredients are vague, is brewed thus: Take Gin and Sauternes (sweet) and mix accordingly to the taste and capacity of yourself and your friends. Add a small Burgundy or Bordeaux. Quantities have never been measured.
  3. Arvid Olof Theophile Stenbock, born 1868, Kolk, Estonia; died 1943 aged 75, Finland. Arvid was the son of Count Nikolai Stenbock (1840-1902) and Magda Amalie Aline von Anders (1843-1934) and Arvid married Annie Ellen Rosine Jacobson (1877-1953) in 1906. It is said that Eric’s parents were not happy with the friendship between Eric and his cousin Arvid as there was an unnatural closeness between them and Eric was eight years senior to the boy. The dedication reads thus: ‘In this Book I dedicate the Myrtle thereof to Simeon Solomon, the Rue thereof to Arvid Stenbock and the Cypress thereof to the memory of Charles Bertram Fowler.’ At the time of publication (1883) Arvid would have been fifteen years old. In the language of flowers the Cypress is symbolic of ‘death, despair and mourning’ while the Myrtle represents ‘love, fidelity and chastity’ and the Rue ‘regret, disdain and adultery’.
  4. In the 1841 census for the Fowler family we find them living at Eastleach, Turville in Gloucestershire and the head of the household, John Fowler, aged 35-39 is from Gloucestershire; Mary Fowler, 35-39, Benjamin Fowler aged 11, Frederick Fowler aged 8, Alfred Fowler aged 6 and Emily Fowler aged 3, all born in Gloucestershire. 1841 Census for England and Wales: Reg number H0107, page 17, piece/folio 352/11.
  5. Reverend Walter Octavius Marsh Hughes matriculated on 14th October 1879, aged 19, clerk, at Magdalene College, Oxford, 1880-83. B.A. 1883.
  6. Walter Bertram Hughes born 15th May 1885 (Christened 21st June 1885) at Houghton-le-Spring, Durham; Jessie Muriel Hughes, Christened 1st January 1887, Houghton-le-Spring, Durham; John Bernard Hughes (Lieutenant), born 2nd May 1888 and Christened 20th May 188 at Houghton-le-Spring, Durham; Geoffrey Arden Hughes, Christened 19th October 1890 at Torperley, Cheshire; Alfred Harcourt Hughes, Christened 2nd December 1894 at Torperley, Cheshire.
  7. Catherine Bessie Fowler born 16th May 1893 in Toronto, York, Ontario, Canada and Hubert Howard Snowden Fowler, born 18th December 1894 in Toronto, York, Ontario, Canada. Catherine (aged 29 and a trained nurse) married Johnathan Pyott Hadfield M.D. (age 34, born 1888, the son of John H Hadfield and Jennie A Pyott) on 3rd June 1922 at Bowmanville, Durham, Ontario, Canada. A description of the ‘pretty wedding’ which ‘took place at St. John’s Church on Saturday afternoon’ is given in ‘The Canadian Statesman’. vol lxviii. Bowmanville. Ontario. June 8 1922: The bride’s mother attended and her brother, Herbert S Fowler acted as best man. Herbert Howard Snowden Fowler, Lieutenant, entered the Royal Naval Air Service on 7th December 1916, 12 Naval Squadron; 8 Naval Squadron (later 208 Squadron) on 18th August 1917. Discharged when it was discovered he was almost completely deaf. He immigrated aged 24 on 12th July 1918 to Ellis Island, New York City, USA, departing from the port of Liverpool on the Grampian.
  8. Register Index of Births for England and Wales: 1864 July-Sept. Northleach, Gloucestershire. Volume 6a, page 332, line number 149 Register Index of Deaths for England and Wales: 1881 April-June. Faringdon, Berkshire, aged 16. Volume 2c, page 163, line number 282.
  9. 1861 Census for England and Wales: Reg number RG09, page 15, piece/folio 1269/11.
  10. 1871 Census for England and Wales: entry number 19, affiliate image identifier: GBC/1871/3053/0108 and 0109.
  11. ‘Stenbock, Yeats and the Nineties’. John Adlard. 1969. (see page 16)
  12. ‘He [Stenbock] was in Oxford on the 23rd May, [1881] having his photograph taken. Twenty days later, in the village of Compton Beauchamp (some twenty-two miles from Oxford) a consumptive boy of sixteen died at the Rectory. He was Charles Bertram Fowler, son of the Reverend Alfred Fowler, who had died the year before.’ Adlard. p. 16
  13. 1881 Census. Page 28, Reg Number RG11, piece/folio1277/17.
  14. ‘Love, Sleep and Dreams’. Eric Stenbock. 1881.
  15. Love in Earnest: Some Notes on the Lives and Writings of English ‘Uranian’ Poets from 1889 to 1930. Timothy d’Arch Smith. 1970.
  16. The Magical World of Aleister Crowley. Francis King. 1977.
  17. I have since found that the ‘Kelly’s Directory of Berkshire, Bucks and Oxon’. 1883, states that the village of Compton Beauchamp’s Church, St Swithin’s (Early English) has a living which is the rector, with residence (Rectory) and 23 acres of Glebe. In 1883 the Rector since 1849 was the Reverend George Carter M.A. of St John’s College, Oxford, matriculating on 9th June 1832 aged 19, B.A. 1836, M.A. 1840, born in 1813, Coventry, Warwickshire (died 1890). He married first wife Elizabeth (born 1816) [2 children: George Frederick St John b. 1842, Northamtonshire; Elizabeth Joanna Louisa b. 1845, Kent] and 2nd wife Catherine Courtenay (born 1827, Tunbridge Wells) daughter of the Right Hon. Thomas Peregrine Courtenay and Anne Wynell-Mayow on 3rd June 1851. They had 5 children: Evelyn Howard b. 1852; Charles William b. 1855; Ernest Courtenay b. 1858; Catherine b. 1867 and Wynell Henry b. 1869. – Ernest Courtenay was born at the Rectory on 17th February 1858 and educated at Charterhouse, London and Leamington College. Went up to St John’s College, Oxford 1880, B.A. 1884. Holy Orders 1888, Priest 1889, Curate of Chievely 1889-1896. Vicar of St Jude, Whitechapel 1899. He married Lillian Hughes (b. 1867) the daughter of Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, in 1890. Ernest and Lillian boarded the Titanic at Southampton and both chose to stay on board – their bodies were not identified. Also in ‘Kelly’s Directory’ with Rev. George Carter it mentions the Reverend William Richard Jones M.A of Jesus College, Oxford who is curate in charge and resides at the Rectory (1883). In the 1881 census (taken on the night of 3rd April) the family are at the Rectory in Compton Beauchamp: Rev. William R Jones is 43 (born 1838) and a ‘clerk in Holy Orders curate in charge’. His wife Elizabeth is 24 from Haresfield, Gloucestershire; they have three visitors: Sarah J Hopkinson aged 20 from Haresfield, Gloucestershire, Charles N Lingen, 32 from Nantmel, Radnorshire, Wales; Emily Lingen, 32 from Rochdale, Lancashire. There are two servants at the Rectory: Sarah Davies, 38 from Shrewsbury, Shropshire and Mary Titcomb, 13 from Kingstone, Berkshire. 1881 Census for England and Wales, Reg number: RG11, page 14, piece/folio 1277/66.
  18. 1881 Census for England and Wales: Reg number RG11, page 11, piece/folio 1100/106. Lucy Sophia Frerichs, aged 19, married Erich Friedrich Diederich Magnus Stenbock on 1st March 1859. After Erich’s death in 1861, Lucy married Francis Mowatt on 9th June 1864 at St Luke’s Church, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, and in 1874 the family moved from Lucy’s ancestral home at Thirlestaine Hall (where Eric Stenbock was born on 12th March 1860) to Withdeane Hall in Sussex.
  19. 1891 Census for England and Wales: Reg number: RG12, page 8, piece/folio 970/50.
  20. 1901 Census for England and Wales: Schedule type 122, page 20.
  21. Reverend William Pomeroy Ogle (1859-1884), son of the Reverend William Reynolds Ogle of Bishop’s Teignton, Devon. Rev. W P Ogle went up to Christ’s Church, Oxford; matriculating on 11th October 1878 aged 19. He visited Stenbock on 31st July 1884 and died the next day on 1st August aged 24 years. For more about Ogle see ‘The Vigil: A Poem in Memory of the Reverend William Pomeroy Ogle, Curate of the Church of St. Thomas-the-Martyr, Brentwood, Essex.’ by James M B Dwight. 1885; also ‘Of Kings and Things: Strange Tales and Decadent Poems by Count Stanislaus Eric Stenbock’. Edited by David Tibet. Strange Attractor Press. 2018. p. xxvi-xxviii.